Once upon a time, our ancestors knew little beyond the events in their clan or tribe or village. News from the outside world came with the danger of travel and trusting others. Later with improvements in transportation, the growth of cities, and communication technology, when a crisis occurred in a land far away, they still might not hear about it for days, weeks, months, or ever.
It’s now possible to see a global array of horrors and indignities while sipping my morning coffee. I am not compassionate by nature. I am, however, quick to feel outrage at injustice, cruelty, and ignorance. Combined with a love of learning, this creates a personality type that can get quickly overwhelmed. In the past couple years, I’ve found myself breathless with anxiety and rage about some topics. This builds upon the past 15 years of increasing political animosity in my country, which I’ve felt as a stressful tightness in my chest. It doesn’t seem that I’m the only one in this situation. How can we deal with this? How can I?
The easy solution would be to allow myself to be uninformed. When I avoid the news for a while, I’m certainly less anxious and the world goes without me. Yet, that’s unsatisfying. I care about what’s happening to other people in other places. I care about what is being done in my name as an American citizen.
I could choose to be selectively informed. When I talk with my family and some acquaintances, I see what this could be like: to be very knowledgeable about network TV competition shows and local news scaremongering, but almost entirely clueless about the world at large. Many of these folks have favorite supplemental news sources that reflect their political beliefs — NPR or Rachel Maddow, Rush Limbaugh or Fox News. They share things on Facebook that make my jaw drop in amazement. Racist, stupid rants. Cluelessly idealistic things. They post something ignorant to Facebook, then go back to sharing clickbait quizzes. What type of oatmeal are you? I got Maple Walnut!
There are good and bad things about my current approach. I can be terrier-like in trying to make sure I’m informed. It’s not enough for me to see a headline about events in Ukraine. I start there, but then I talk with friends from Europe, I read Pravda online (both English and Russian versions), I study maps, I follow links from Wikipedia to learn more about Russian thinkers and philosophers, I read passionate essays from both pro-Russian and anti-Russian thinkers, I dig deeply into Russian nationalist writing that allegedly inspires Putin, I read summaries of Russian history to refresh my memory of books I’ve read in the past. I look through photo galleries and watch YouTube videos from Ukraine, Crimea, Georgia, and Chechnya. I think, talk, and write until I’m pretty sure I have a reasonable opinion. I can usually put a topic aside then. I can be content keeping up with the news and I don’t need to go digging again.
But sometimes, when the topic is something closer to home, I have a terrible internal struggle. There is a radical revolutionary inside of me. She wants to protest, riot, overthrow! However, she’s surrounded by the rest of me: introverted, shy, mobility-impaired, middle-aged, suburban. My husband and my SL partner add to the voices of reason, reminding me that I’m not much use in a march when I can’t walk a mile without pain. I might want to volunteer to organize protests, but when push came to shove, I’d collapse into guilty shyness. True and true. I have a revolutionary spirit. In another life, I’d be waving a flag atop the barricades. In this life, I use an app on my smartphone to turn up the furnace because I’m a tad chilly. I’m cozy and complacent on the outside, much to the endless disgust of inner me.
I thought about this when I read the essay Orwell’s World from the current issue of Intelligent Life magazine. It inspired me to reread Huxley’s Brave New World; I don’t think I can stomach 1984 again.
“We thought, after the year 1984,(interest in the novel 1984 and Orwell) would flatten out and disappear,” Bill Hamilton says, “and it would all look a bit old-fashioned. After the Wall came down, we thought even more so, he’d look like a creature of history.”
The vision of the future Aldous Huxley had conjured up in “Brave New World”, of a society rendered passive by a surplus of comforts and distraction, seemed more prescient. In 1985, the cultural critic Neil Postman argued in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us while Huxley feared that what we love would ruin us. In 2002 J.G. Ballard, reviewing a biography of Huxley, said that “Brave New World” was “a far shrewder guess at the likely shape of a future tyranny than Orwell’s vision of Stalinist terror…‘1984’ has never really arrived, but ‘Brave New World’ is around us everywhere.” …
THE OPPOSITE TURNED out to be the case. As Bill Hamilton says, “It all came roaring back with a vengeance.” At the Q&A with the cast of “1984”, I asked the actors what they had researched in terms of everyday life in 2014 to help them understand the world of the play. One answer was Edward Snowden on YouTube showing how the National Security Agency (NSA) snoops on ordinary Americans, another was news footage from the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, and a third—from the actress playing Julia…—was that the most useful research for her had been living in New York in the wake of 9/11. It wasn’t the horror of the two planes going into the twin towers: it was the fear and paranoia that followed.
Personally, I think we live in a blend of the two. We are observed, manipulated and controlled, but we choose to sate ourselves with bread and circuses. It isn’t selective artificial breeding and childhood Pavlovian training that condition us to spend our time on Dancing With the Stars and Call of Duty, or obsessing over the perfect local organic kale or posting photos to Yelp of our Fiery Doritos Locos Taco Supreme. There are so many ways to distract ourselves. (I would also argue that we use those “trivial entertainments” to build identity, socialize, and connect. They are not meaningless. However, they are choices we make in how to spend our limited time.)
I’m saved from a spiral of despair by a few things. I’m an optimist and I find small pleasures and reassurances daily. I read enough to know that many things are getting better. Quality of life has improved for billions of people during my years on this planet, despite inequality and violence. Segments of our environment are much cleaner and species have been saved. It’s a great luxury to fight for less sexist video games rather than fighting for the right to vote, which was granted to American women after my grandmothers were born.
Perspective is easy to lose and I think that’s one of the risks that comes with having unimaginable quantities of information at our fingertips. If I’ve been wallowing in the horrors of ISIS and the CIA and NSA and other assorted acronyms for a while, I can find some positive news for balance. It doesn’t diminish my outrage but it helps me see the bigger picture again. When my blood comes down from a roiling boil to a simmer, I rationally consider if there is something I can do about the issues troubling me the most. Writing letters or essays, signing petitions, donating money/items/time, or making changes in my own lifestyle — there is often an action I can take, even if it is small.
And sometimes, yes, I take a break. I don’t wake up to BBC World News on the television while skimming the headlines on several major newspaper sites. I read comics and look at pretty pictures instead. That’s life, too.
A side note: The image at the top of this post was one I took last night after reading the useful trio of Getting more out of Flickr articles by Caitlin Tobias. It inspired me to set up another account there for Second Life snaps, which then inspired me to stop being lazy about learning how to use the built-in photo tools. I don’t do any post-processing on my images beyond cropping, because I want to provide a realistic view of what you can see inside the virtual world, but I do tweak a lot of settings in the viewer.